How are Christians to view systems of thought that are rooted in pagan or secular beliefs? Are non-Christian belief systems so filled with error that Christians can learn nothing from them? Are they so foreign that they only corrupt Christian truth?
Or is there important revelatory common ground made available to all people that allows non-Christians to discover critical truths about life and the world? Could that discovery of truth mean that Christians can learn from pagan or secular sources?
This controversial question of how Christians should view non-Christian belief systems goes back a long way in Christian history. In the ancient world, the question centered on Christianity’s relationship to Greco-Roman philosophy. Two early and prominent Christian church fathers in the ancient world came up with different answers to this challenging issue. Interestingly, both of these Christian thinkers were noted North African church fathers.
Tertullian’s Antithesis Perspective
Tertullian (c. 160–220) was a Latin, North African church father who was educated in the subjects of law and rhetoric and was an engaging writer. He converted to Christianity in midlife. Unique, bold, and temperamental, he served as an apologist and polemicist for early Christianity at a time when the faith encountered a hostile Roman culture.
Tertullian’s view of Christianity’s relationship to pagan philosophy reflects a clear antithesis (a clash of opposition). He strongly believed that Christians had no need or use for pagan philosophy. In his mind, pagan philosophy contaminated and corrupted the one true Christian faith.
Here’s Tertullian at his polemical best:
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon who himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.1
Augustine’s Critical Appropriation Perspective
Augustine (354–430) was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics.
Augustine recognized that pagan philosophy certainly involved false beliefs about God, the world, and the human condition. He saw a clash of worldview between Christian theology and pagan philosophy. But he also recognized that pagans were made in the image of God and were the recipients of general revelation and common grace. Thus, pagans got certain things wrong but also some things right about reality and moral goodness (Acts 17:22–30).
Here’s Augustine commenting on the Platonist philosophers’ nearness and farness to truth:
Platonist philosophers excel all others in reputation and authority, just because they are nearer to the truth than the rest, even though they are a long way from it.2
For Augustine, philosophy is a handmaid (servant) to theology. But pagan philosophy should not be accepted or rejected in totality. Rather, pagan philosophy needs to go through a critical appropriation. In Augustine’s thinking, the Platonists possess the divine image, general revelation, and common grace; thus their keen philosophical insights put them near or “nearer to the truth.” But original sin distorts truth and without special revelation (Christ, the gospel) they are still “a long way from it.”
Augustine’s thinking on this topic became the consensus position. For example, the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) followed Augustine’s critical appropriation model when forming his Christian-Aristotelian synthesis. Here’s Christian theologian Gerald McDermott’s description of Aquinas’s approach to evaluating the philosophy of Aristotle:
Thomas accepted from Aristotle what he thought was in accord with Christian doctrine, rejected what he thought was not (and explained why), and used some of Aristotle’s categories to help teach Christian faith.3
What We Can Learn
Though they got some important ideas wrong, the great Greek philosophers still had deep insights about such realities as truth, goodness, and beauty. But how do the ancient pagan religions compare to today’s world religions? Well, the ancient pagan religions were a lot like contemporary non-Christian world religions. They got a lot wrong (false gods and false beliefs about humanity) but they also got some critical issues right (for example, a sense of the divine and important aspects about morality).
I think Augustine’s model is superior to that of Tertullian when it comes to explaining how Christianity can relate to other belief systems. As Christians, we grant that people in other religious systems get important things right by a revelation of truth that is given to all (Psalm 19). Yet we must also appreciate the inevitable errors and distortions due to idolatry (false gods and immoral practices) that are inherent in non-Christian religions (Romans 1:18–28). This common ground affords Christians the opportunity to build responsible bridges that can hopefully lead to sharing the gospel message with people who don’t know Christ.
Reflections: Your Turn
Is it biblical to think non-Christian religions will always combine some basic truths mixed with deeply false ideas about God? If so, why?
- For more on Tertullian, see “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Tertullian“
- For more on Augustine, see “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Augustine“
- For a Christian evaluation of some of today’s world religious systems, see Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Isn’t Just Another Religious Leader
- As cited in Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader,2nd. ed.(Oxford, Blackwell, 2001), 7-8.
- St. Augustine, The City of God, Henry Bettenson trans. (New York: Penguin, 1984), Book 11, section 5, 434.
- Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 65.